Budo and the Art of Japanese Calligraphy

By Davey, H. E.
This article first appeared in the Spring-Summer 1995 issue of "Furyu: The Budo Journal."

Many students of traditional Budo have read that the education of the bushi consisted of a dual emphasis on bun and bu. Bu refers to the study of martial strategy and combat, while bun indicates the literary and fine arts of Japan. Some scholars of Budo have even declared that bun and bu must be considered as one. For example, Nakajima Masayoshi Sensei, fifth headmaster of Takenouchi-Hangan-Ryu, has written that, in addition to the ryu's eighteen classical martial arts, students are taught such fine arts as Shakuhachi (five-holed flute), Shimai (a form of Noh dance), Yokyoku (Noh song), Sado (tea ceremony), and Kado (flower arrangement). Moreover, in feudal Japan, young bushi, or samurai, of the Aizu clan attended the Nisshinkan, where in addition to taking part in the martial activities that many would expect from an institute of samurai education, the youths also received detailed instruction in the Chinese classics, religion, etiquette, classical music, mathematics, healing arts, astronomy, and Japanese calligraphy. It was the art of brush writing, in fact, that was among the most important of studies for the higher-ranking bushi. Actually, for many ancient warriors, as well as present-day Japanese martial arts experts, Japanese calligraphy (Shodo) amounts to a vital part of Budo training.

Shodo, or the Way of Calligraphy, is studied by a multitude of Japanese, from college professors to housewives. However, even in Japan, few fully grasp the connection between Budo and Shodo, or how Japanese brush writing can be used as an exceptionally effective form of supplemental training for the Budoka. This is holds true despite the fact that many past masters of the martial arts and ways were also masters of Shodo. Well-known martial artists such as Miyamoto Musashi; Aikido's founder, Ueshiba Morihei Sensei; and Muto Ryu Kenjutsu's founder, Yamaoka Tesshu Sensei, are all held in equally high regard as calligraphers. Yamaoka Sensei is a fine example of a master of the dual ways of Sho and Bu. Terayama Katsujo Sensei, in his foreword to The Sword of No-Sword, writes:

Yamaoka Tesshu was an outstanding figure of the turbulent era that marked the birth of modern Japan. In the public sphere, Tesshu negotiated with Saigo Takamori and arranged for the peaceful transfer of power from the old order to the new; as an individual student of the Ways, Tesshu attained profound enlightenment at the age of forty-five and realized the inner principles of swordsmanship, Zen, and calligraphy. Thereafter, Tesshu was like Miyamoto Musashi, "passing one's days without attachment to any particular Way" (Book of Five Rings). Tesshu too became an extraordinarily versatile and prolific master: a peerless swordsman who established the No-Sword School; a wise and compassionate Zen teacher in the Tekisui tradition; and an unrivaled calligrapher who gathered all things of heaven and earth in his brush. Even today, nearly a century after his death, Tesshu's incredible vitality can still be discerned in his brushwork. 1

As the actions of the sword in Kenjutsu can be considered a reflection of one's mind, in Shodo, the dynamic movement of the artist's spiritual force, or Ki, becomes visible in the form of jet-black ink. Like traditional Budo, Shodo, which is derived from 3000-year-old Chinese characters adopted by Japan, can be practiced as a means of cultivating Ki. In Zen and the Art of Japanese Calligraphy, Omori Sogen Roshi expresses this idea:

The work of a Zen artist, on the other hand, is permeated by what Hakuin called the "overwhelming force of enlightened vision." That force is kiai. Ki, the energy of the cosmos, is always present but remains dormant if not cultivated. Kiai is to be full of ki; it is incorporated in the ink as bokki. 2

Setsudo said about this: "Bokki is not, as most people believe, the colour of the ink, and does not depend on the quality of the brush, ink, and paper. If one's ki is not extended into the work, the bokki is dead." 3 The clarity of the bokki is not seen with the eyes, it is sensed with the hara, the physical and spiritual centre of one's body. Bokki reveals the calligrapher's inner light.

Many followers of Budo, especially Aikido and Aiki-jujutsu practitioners, place a similar emphasis on the cultivation of Ki, kiai, and hara in their own disciplines, just as Shodo is viewed by its disciples as an equally effective method of developing oneself spiritually. A spontaneous creative gesture that has much in common with abstract expressionism, Shodo is more than mere writing, and its skilled practitioners believe that the "visible rhythm" created by the brush is a "picture of the mind" which reveals the calligrapher's physical and mental condition. For hundreds of years in China and Japan, leaders in any field, including Budo, were expected to demonstrate a powerful, composed script. Recently, major American and European corporations have started to employ handwriting analysts to help them select future executives; however, the study of byohitsu, or "sick strokes," is not new to Japan. It is believed that the subconscious mind is unmasked at the moment the brush is put to paper. It is also felt that one's subconscious can be positively influenced by copying masterpieces of Japanese calligraphy executed by exceptional individuals such as Yamaoka Tesshu Sensei. Like Budo, Shodo is ultimately a means of cultivating the personality by developing positive subconscious habits. Martial arts author Michel Random writes, "It is said that internal serenity drives the brush. The brush in effect interprets the deepest part of the subconscious. The 'wisdom of the eye' is what relates the characters to each other as though assembling the movable and the immutable, the ego to the 10,000 things in the universe, the present to the timeless."

Each brush stroke in Japanese calligraphy must be perfectly executed since the artist never goes back to touch up any character. Each movement of the fude, or brush, is ideally performed with the full force of one's mind and body, as if one's very life depended upon the successful completion of each action. It is this spirit of decisiveness, of throwing 100% of oneself into the moment's action without hesitation, that perhaps most clearly connects Budo and the art of Japanese calligraphy. Random further states in The Martial Arts:

For is not the ability to make the stroke flow naturally, to let the brush move freely across a thin piece of paper, also a superior struggle of the most testing kind? The spontaneous stroke of the brush is reminiscent of the quick free thrust of the sword or the freedom of the arrow fired effortlessly. Wherever there is distress, worry or uneasiness, there can be no perfect freedom or swiftness of action. 4

In Shodo, all mistakes are final, just as in the martial arts a mistake ultimately, or at least symbolically, results in the Budoka's death. For this reason, many beginners in calligraphy lack the spiritual strength to paint the character decisively. Each stroke must be delivered like the slash of the bushi's sword, yet the brush must be held in a relaxed manner, as well as manipulated without a loss of controlled calmness. Through rigorous training, a kind of seishin tanren (spiritual forging), the student's mental condition is altered, and this change in consciousness is expected to be carried into the individual's daily life as well. For the Budoka, the added strength and composure, which is cultivated by Japanese calligraphy allows him or her to more instantly respond to an opponent's attack without hesitation. In one sense, the shuji-gami, or calligraphy paper, which is so sensitive that the ink will "bleed" through it in seconds, is one's opponent and the brush one's sword. Every kanji, or character, must be painted with a perfect asymmetrical balance, which like a person's balance in Jujutsu, must be developed until it is maintained on a subconscious level. (In fact, the author has found his prior training in Aiki-jujutsu to be invaluable for sensing balance in Shodo, and over the years, his study of calligraphy has enabled him to more precisely see, and correct, a lack of balance in the bodies of his Aiki-jujutsu students.)

Shodo requires a balanced use of the mind and body, as well as a state of mental and physical integration. As many novices in the martial arts have discovered, it is sometimes rather difficult to make the mind and body work together as a unit. To simply paint a straight line can be a surprising challenge, one that can be accomplished only through a coordination of one's faculties. In Japanese painting and calligraphy, a strongly concentrated mind must control the brush, and a relaxed body must allow the brush to act as an exact reflection of the mind's movement. Shodo, as much as Budo, demands this coordination. Through calligraphy practice, the martial artist has an additional means of realizing the essential harmony of thought and action, and a visible means of illustrating this state of unification at that. To achieve unification of mind and body, of course, demands a positive, concentrated use of the mind, along with a natural and relaxed use of the body. It is this enhancement of concentration and relaxation that many people, including Japanese practitioners of the martial arts, find so appealing.

Just as Judo begins by gripping the opponent, and Iaido begins by gripping the sword, so too does Shodo start with the student's hold on the brush. Unless the proper method of holding is mastered, no real progress is possible. Some teachers in the past tried to suddenly pull the brush from the student's hand as a means of testing the grip. An ink-covered hand would reveal an improperly held brush. However, squeezing tightly is not the answer, because this does not produce flowing, dynamic characters. Limply gripping, on the other hand, results only in a loss of brush control. It was, and is, therefore essential to learn to hold the fude in a way that is neither tense nor limp, with a kind of "alive" grip in which one's Ki is projected from downward-pointing fingers through the brush, out of the tip, and into the paper. This same supple, yet firm grip, is vital in most forms of Budo, and it has been characterized as "Ki de toru," that is, holding with Ki.

As an individual prepares to paint, he or she will notice if the tip of the brush is still or shaking. A wobbling brush not only makes it difficult to paint stable kanji, but it also indicates an unstable, nervous mental state. In Shodo, and Budo, the body reflects the mind. Therefore, the bushi would also notice if his opponent's kissaki (sword tip) began to tremble, for this was often an indication of suki--a break in the opponent's composure and concentration, and an opportunity to attack. In Shodo, as in Budo, as in daily life, the mind and body are interconnected.

In both Shodo and Budo, one's spirit controls the brush or, in the case of Budo, one's body. The Shodo student needs to strongly focus on the character to be painted for a split second, and then without hesitation, move the brush in a relaxed manner. In this way, the Shodo artist endeavors to succeed mentally before the brush even touches the paper, in much the same way that a skilled Budoka will spiritually win before engaging the opponent. Japanese calligraphy dictates that the movement of a person's Ki slightly precedes the brush as it draws the character.

Shodo has a "visible rhythm"; in other words, the kanji sit in repose on the paper, but they must look and feel as if they are moving. (This is the state of dochu no sei, or "stillness in motion," that is often alluded to in esoteric densho, or manuals containing a school's most profound teachings. Its converse is "motion in stillness." It is the unity of these two conditions that results in skilled Shodo and Budo.) To create this dynamic, yet balanced feeling, the brush must flow in a free and easy manner. Each kanji has a set number of strokes that must be brushed in a precisely defined order. Within the form of each character, the brush should move smoothly from one stroke to the next. This creates a rhythm, which must not be broken if the character is to take on a dynamic appearance, and unless a constant flow of concentration is maintained, this rhythm will be broken. Many people have an unfortunate tendency to cut off their stream of attention at the completion of an action. In calligraphy, this often happens when finishing a single character or at the end of a line of words. It is vital to maintain an unbroken flow of Ki and concentration throughout the artistic act. In Budo as well as Shodo, this is known as zanshin (literally "remaining mind"), and it indicates a kind of "mental follow-through" and unbroken condition of calm awareness. Shodo has been used in the past, as well as the present, as a way for Budoka to develop zanshin without the presence of an actual opponent.

Both Budo and Shodo have been characterized as forms of "moving meditation." Michel Random eloquently describes this unique method of meditation with the brush:

The sign is repeated until total spontaneity is achieved, completely free from thought . . . spontaneity and not automatism of movement which is contrary to the object of the exercise. In calligraphy (as in the martial arts), the space between the lines is what matters. It is this space which gives the signs their beauty. In Zen painting, we find the same need for pressure and spontaneity. Here, we see the result of the movement of the brush and ink on the paper. The brush is dipped in encre de chine. The special quality paper is very fine and absorbent. The brush hardly needs to touch the paper to make a large blob. Therefore, the hand must skim or fly across the paper without stopping. Thought is free. 5

Few realize that many of the brush strokes in Shodo are similar, or the same as, the lines of the fude in Japanese ink painting (Sumi-e). Both the Japanese and the Chinese use pictographs as well as thousands of ideograms in their languages, each with a specific meaning, producing a virtually limitless combination of expressions. A large number of kanji are actually abstract and abbreviated pictures which can evoke emotion in the viewer, just as some paintings do, owing to their variety and depth. For this reason, it is not uncommon to find that some Japanese calligraphers can actually paint, and some Sumi-e experts can execute calligraphy, as the two arts overlap considerably.

Shodo is, thus, an art that can be appreciated just as much by individuals that cannot read Japanese as by those that can. For just as it is possible to enjoy the rhythm and sound of music, without being able to read the notes, it is also possible to appreciate Japanese calligraphy without being fluent in Japanese. In the dynamic beauty of Shodo, one finds the essential components that make up all art--balance, rhythm, grace, and the beauty of line. These aspects of Shodo, which are also found in properly performed Budo, can be appreciated by all cultures.

Dave Lowry, the esteemed author of Autumn Lightning, describes his impressions, as a young American, observing the calligraphy painted by his sensei:

... Sensei was writing in the much older kanji characters of Japanese script with ink and a soft bristled brush. There is a maxim in the bujutsu, ken, sho, ichi, a reminder that the katana and the brush are one and the same in practice and the swordsman must wield his blade with exactly the accuracy and artistry with which he employs a brush to render the intricate characters of calligraphy. Sensei's characters, like his swordsmanship, were adroit and flowing, unconsciously expert. 6

It is the author's hope that this article will encourage American martial artists to look beyond Budo's more obvious physical aspects, to realize that it is a Way born out of the arts, religions, and history of Japan; that it is a cultural art like tea ceremony, Shakuhachi, Shodo, and others; and that ultimately, it is not possible to fully remove Budo from Japan's cultural matrix without altering beyond recognition its true form. In fact, it may help individuals not fluent in Japanese to realize that Shodo is often painted in ancient and highly abstract scripts, such as tensho and sosho, which the average Japanese cannot even read. (Shodo is, however, an enjoyable, stimulating method of learning the Japanese language--the international language of Budo.)

Perhaps, through the practice of Shodo, Western martial artists can come to also understand the other so-called "impenetrable" Japanese cultural arts that the bushi considered an invaluable part of his education, and which are so rarely explored by Budoka today.


  1. John Stevens, The Sword of No-Sword, Boulder: Shambhala,1984, p. vii.
  2. Omori Sogen and Terayama Katsujo, Zen and the Art of Japanese Calligraphy, Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983, p.10.
  3. Michel Random, The Martial Arts, London: Octopus Books Limited, 1978, p. 98.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Dave Lowry, Autumn Lightning, Boston: Shambhala, 1985, p.142.


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